The Catholic Church in Ireland looks like it’s in trouble. It’s still reeling from the clerical abuse scandals that have shaken its foundations over the better part of two decades, and it’s struggling to cope with the challenges of the island’s extraordinarily rapid secularization.
A new book by Fr Gerry O’Hanlon, The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis: A Synodal Catholic Church in Ireland? (Messenger Publications, 2018), argues that there is hope that the Catholic Church can reform itself.
When Francis became pope in 2013, he was greeted with enthusiasm by many Catholics. Even the world’s media, which has played such an important role in exposing clerical abuse and which can be justifiably critical of the Church, was captivated by Francis’ humble approach. Remarkably, Time Magazine named him its Person of the Year less than a year into his pontificate.
It looked like some were anticipating that Francis would lead a ‘loud revolution,’ featuring quick reforms and changes in teachings around women’s ordination, LGBTQ people, married priests, etc. A term, ‘The Francis Effect,’ was even coined to describe the pope’s positive impact on the Church and people’s perceptions of it.
And Francis seemingly has been more open than his predecessors. He famously said of LGBTQ people, ‘who am I to judge?’, and said they should be integrated into society. He washed the feet of Muslim prisoners. He said that the Church should be a ‘field hospital’ for the poor, the sinners and the discarded.
But five years into his pontificate, and with his upcoming visit to Ireland for the World Meeting of Families, many people cannot identify any substantial changes in the Church, in Ireland or internationally. It is clear that Francis holds traditional Catholic views on women’s ordination, abortion, and so on. Is the Francis Effect simply mood music that casts the Church in a slightly better light?
O’Hanlon doesn’t think so. Although just this week Francis changed church teaching on capital punishment – saying that the death penalty is now never justifiable – for Hanlon, focusing on change by papal fiat misses the point.
O’Hanlon is a former provincial of the Jesuits in Ireland and a social theologian with the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice. He writes regularly in the mainstream media and journals like The Furrow and Studies and is the author of A New Vision for the Catholic Church and Theology in the Irish Public Square.
The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis explains that the most important way that Francis is changing the Church is through pushing it to assume a more synodal structure.
At this point many readers may be scratching their heads and wondering:
‘What on earth is a synodal church?’
For most of us in Ireland, the term is associated with the Church of Ireland, because the name of its annual gathering is the ‘General Synod.’ As O’Hanlon acknowledges, ‘To many Irish Catholic ears the term ‘synodal’ is a little difficult and unfamiliar and may, dimly, convey a certain ‘Protestant’ feel’ (p. 50).
O’Hanlon asserts that this ‘Protestant feel’ is no accident: Francis believes that the early church was more communal and participative in the ways it discerned the will of the Holy Spirit. So it follows that a synodal structure, which was preserved in Eastern Orthodox traditions and which echoes in Protestant churches like the Church of Ireland’s General Synod, the Presbyterian Church in Ireland’s General Assembly and the Methodist Church in Ireland’s Conference, can provide the means for reforming a Church in which the papacy and the Curia have become too dominant.
One of the examples O’Hanlon uses to illustrate a synodal church is Francis’ renewal of the Synod of Bishops. Remarkably, its 2015 Synod on the Family featured a questionnaire-style consultation with laity in the run-up to the event. The Synod also resulted in a recommendation that divorced and civilly remarried Catholics should be more fully integrated into the Church.
Critics pointed out that there were no women among those with votes at the synod, and that it did not go so far as to allow divorced Catholics to receive the Eucharist. But for O’Hanlon what matters is not so much the immediate results of a particular synod. What matters is that Francis has begun to lay down more synodal structures. This is the quiet revolution.
As such, The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis develops in more detail an idea that O’Hanlon has been advocating over a number of years: that the key to meaningful reform in the Church is structural reform – and synods are the structures that can deliver change.
And O’Hanlon doesn’t just mean Synods of Bishops gathering in Rome. For him – and, it seems, Francis – synods should become one of the primary means through which the Church discerns its mission and role in the contemporary world.
Furthermore, synods should not be just for clergy. O’Hanlon looks no further than Limerick for an example of this in practice. In 2016 the Diocese of Limerick held a synod which resulted in some recommendations and changes in the Diocese. It was attended by 400 delegates, clerical and lay, women and men, single and married.
O’Hanlon also wants the Church to promote ‘conferences and public dialogues in which prominent public intellectuals of all faiths and none would engage in conversations about human flourishing in Ireland’ (p. 153-154). This is reminiscent of Denis Bradley’s argument that what the Church needs to do to renew itself is to have a ‘consultation of the unfaithful.’
In this book, O’Hanlon repeats a call he has made often over the past few years – that the Irish Church should have a first national assembly or synod.
He points out that after Pope Benedict’s Letter to Irish Catholics in 2010, Bishop Seamus Freeman promised that there would be ‘a ‘structured dialogue’ at national level within the Irish Church’ (p. 149). Although this has not yet happened, this is something that could be taken up by the Irish Bishops; or, as O’Hanlon notes, the Bishops could accept the Association of Catholic Priests’ repeated offers to organize such a dialogue.
O’Hanlon also offers clear and concise theological justifications of how synodal structures flow from Vatican II, emphasizing the idea that the church is all the people of God, not simply clerical elites. This includes Vatican II’s emphasis that all the faithful have a role in discerning the Spirit.
But even if Francis is committed to a synodal Church, do Catholics in Ireland and around the world have the will and inspiration to see the project through?
O’Hanlon hoped that Francis’ visit and the World Meeting of Families could spark a ‘more process-centred approach’ in the Church (p.149) – perhaps even inspiring the announcement of a National Synod. But it seems this opportunity has not been grasped. Indeed, Mary McAleese has claimed that the World Meeting of Families has become a political rally for right-wing groups; and Fr Tony Flannery reports that efforts by We Are Church to be included in the event have been ignored.
As a review of the book by Fr John Buckley’s pessimistically concludes: ‘The hope of a ‘Synodal Church’ in the near future is remote but we must press onwards and upwards.’
One senses that O’Hanlon doesn’t quite share Buckley’s pessimism. The Quiet Revolution of Pope Francis expresses his conviction that another way is possible, and a certain faith in Irish Catholics that they can travel this path.